Life FOR God

This is the fourth of five sermons I’m delivering based on the insights I’ve gained from reading Sky Jethani’s book WITH, Reimaging The Way You Relate to God.

Life WITH God
Part 4
What Does God Expect of Me? – Life FOR God
Inspired by (and with credit to) the book WITH by Skye Jethani
Based on Luke 15:11-32 and Selected Texts
Delivered on November 24 & 25, 2012
by David J. Claassen

Do you want to have the right relationship with God? I’m sure you do; otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this! That’s why in this five-part sermon series we’re looking at some of the positions we can take in relation to God. As I’ve indicated before, I want to give credit to author Skye Jethani and the wonderful insights he offers in his book With: Reimaging the Way You Relate to God. Using five prepositions, he describes five positions we can take in relation to God. We can experience life UNDER God, life OVER God, life FROM God, life FOR God, or the best way: life WITH God. Probably of the first four ways, a serious follower of Jesus can be most tempted to focus on life FOR God.

Jethani’s basic premise is that we can get so caught up trying to do things for Christ that we let that overshadow what’s most important of all: life with Christ. One of Jesus’ stories that illustrates that is The Prodigal Son.

The Older Brother’s Story

In the last message we looked at Jesus’ story of The Prodigal Son, focusing on the prodigal son himself. Now we’ll focus on the older son. He came into the story when the younger son returned home after having asked for his share of their father’s inheritance and having lost it all in a string of poor choices. The father was throwing a party for his younger son, who had returned to him, and the older son wasn’t happy.

This is the way Jesus told that part of the story: “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:28-31)

The older son had been keeping score, and he was quick to bring up the fact that he had sacrificed and worked his fingers to the bone for his father. He wasn’t at all happy that his father was giving so much attention to his younger brother, who had made a mess of things. Comparing the two sons in Jesus’ story, Sky Jethani writes, “The greedy young son illustrates the core characteristics of LIFE FROM GOD, while the loyal older son exemplifies LIFE FOR GOD.” (Loc. 1317)

The older son lived for his father, but he didn’t have much of a relationship with him. He did all the right things: he was a hard worker, he stayed out of trouble, and he didn’t embarrass his father. That was the focus of his relationship with his father.

It’s clear by the context of Jesus’ telling the story that the main character in the story — the focus of the story — was the older son. The gospel writer Luke introduced the story about the lost son and two previous shorter stories about lost sheep and a lost coin by telling us about the criticism Jesus was getting from the religious leaders of His day: “Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”’ (Luke 15:1) Because the religious leaders were judging Jesus for hanging around with “sinners,” He told these three stories, including the lost son story (or the prodigal son story, as we call it). It’s obvious that the character of the older son in the story was based on those religious leaders! Like the older son, they had no compassion for the sinful and the “down-and-outers” who were coming to God.

The religious leaders seemed to be doing all the right religious things, but their lack of compassion exposed the fact that they didn’t really have a loving relationship with God. If they did, it would prompt them to be compassionate toward God’s people.

Life FOR God

We can easily fall into the trap of defining ourselves by what we think we can do for God. We can get so caught up in trying to do things for God that we aren’t experiencing much of life with Him. The mission becomes more important than the Master. Jethan states, “Making God’s mission into an idol is a common and serious fault of the LIFE FOR GOD posture.” (Loc. 1232) He writes later, “Rather than finding our value in God as His beloved children, instead we try to find our value in the mission we are chasing.” (Loc. 1250)

Phil Vischer is best known for being the creator of Veggie Tales, which are stories based on talking vegetables including Larry the Cucumber. Veggie Tales became a huge success. Vischer had visions of building a Christian version of Walt Disney Studios with his Big Ideas company. Then things went terribly wrong with the huge investment that he put into his biggest production, Jonah, and he went bankrupt. Deeply humbled, he was open to what God wanted to teach him. Jethani quotes Vischer: “The more I dove into Scripture, the more I realized I had been deluded. I had grown up drinking a dangerous cocktail – a mix of the gospel, the Protestant work ethic, and the American dream . . . . The Savior I was following seemed, in hindsight, equal parts Jesus, Ben Franklin, and Henry Ford. My eternal value was rooted in what I could accomplish.” (Loc. 1275)

The fact is that our first calling isn’t to do things for God; our first calling is to be with Him. However, we’re continually tempted to confuse our priories. We can get so caught up with serving the Lord in His church that we actually have little time for the Lord Himself. One of my greatest concerns for people who are active in our church is that they can be so active in the church that they don’t have time to attend worship, be part of a small group or a Bible study, read their Bibles, or have a private time of focused prayer with the Lord on a daily basis. Even we pastors can get so caught up in pastoring that we neglect our own relationships with the Lord.

A Wrong Attitude toward God

One result of focusing more on doing for God instead of being with God is that it actually can negatively affect our attitude toward Him. The older son in Jesus’ story was harsh toward his father, feeling hurt that his father had never given him a party.

We can complain to God that He isn’t treating us very well, isn’t seeming to take our prayer requests very seriously, or is allowing bad things to happen to us in spite of all we try to do for Him. We act as if God owes us something. God doesn’t owe us anything! We could work 24 hours a day, seven days a week for Him, to our very limits, and we still wouldn’t have earned the right to be His children and to be blessed by Him. It’s all given to us because of His grace and mercy.

We need to get over the idea that God owes us anything. I’ve always tried to remember something that Jesus taught one day. He was talking about how, when a servant comes in from working hard in the field, he still has to get a meal ready for his master. Jesus said, “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” (Luke 19:17-10) God owes us nothing, so we might as well stop trying to make Him beholden to us. That makes the Christian faith a duty, or even drudgery. Our work for Him becomes a delight when we delight most of all in Him! Focusing on doing for God can ruin our relationship with Him.

A Wrong Attitude toward Other People

The attitude that the older brother in Jesus’ story had toward his younger brother — judgmental and even hateful — is a further outcome of a life focused on doing for God instead of a life with God. When we’re trying so hard to serve the Lord we can start judging other people for not doing as much as we’re doing. In exasperation we mumble, “Why can’t others do more?” or “They’re just a bunch of pew sitters,” or some other phrase that sounds a lot like the older brother in Jesus’ story.

Sometimes we Christians complain that we’re getting burned out serving the Lord, but what’s really burning us is the fact that other people aren’t pulling what we think should be their fair share of the load. Our being judgmental is burning us up and causing us to be burned out. If we’d just focus on our own personal call from the Lord and not worry so much about whether someone else is carrying his part of the load, we’d be a lot happier.

Is there ever a place for church leaders to assess what’s being done and what portion of the church family is committed to serving the Lord? Yes, there is — but I know when I’ve crossed the line from a proper responsibility as a church leader assessing the health of our church to being negative, judgmental, and critical of others in a way that’s not pleasing to the Lord. Jesus portrayed the older brother in a far-from-flattering light. I don’t want to be like him!

Serving WITH Christ

In Jesus’ story, “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:31-32) The father said to his older son, “My son, you are always with me, . . .” The father was focusing on what was important to him: the fact that his older son was always with him. The Lord wants us to focus on being with Him!

In his letter to the Christians at Ephesus, Paul shared his prayer for them. It wasn’t a prayer that they might do a lot of work for the Lord; it was a prayer that focused on their having a good relationship with the Lord: “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:17-19)

Our value isn’t measured by what we can achieve for Christ; our value lies in having a good relationship with Him. Then we can carry out what we here at Mayfair-Plymouth identify as the fifth and final level in our journey with Christ. After Meeting Christ, Following Christ, Learning from Christ, and Becoming Like Christ, we can be Serving with Christ. When we first focus on life with Christ, we can work for Him with delight!

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